To provide feedback on teachers’ work, school leaders can look at the assessments they give in addition to observing how they teach.
One of the key roles of principals and assistant principals is to provide feedback to teachers, which they usually do through classroom observations and individual conferences. We keep hearing, however, that this isn’t successful. Educators often voice concerns that administrators are “out of touch” and “don’t come to the classroom enough to provide accurate feedback.”
This is a challenge. Being a school administrator is a multifaceted, complex job that requires wearing multiple hats. When they’re constantly going from meeting to meeting, it can be difficult to carve out sacred time to observe and give feedback to teachers. We do know, however, that school administrators must be instructional leaders. They must support teachers and enable them to grow and learn in instructional practices.
Perhaps, then, we need a new strategy. It might seem counterintuitive, but instead of focusing on observing and providing feedback on instruction, school administrators should consider providing feedback on classroom assessments.
Assessments drive instruction. Assessments are aligned to learning targets and standards. When teachers unpack their standards and design assessments, they align their assessments to expectations for learning. So assessments drive how those standards are taught.
For example, if an assessment focuses on the skill of analysis, then educators must consider and plan for instruction that scaffolds that skill. Assessments are often common across collaborative teams and professional learning communities, and thus they can impact multiple educators in a single engagement, rather than one.
To be strategic, administrators should focus their feedback on common assessments, both formative and summative. Common assessments focus on key learning objectives and targets. Common formative assessments should focus on “hard to teach, hard to learn” learning in order to strategically anticipate and plan for intervention and extensions. Common summative assessments are aligned to power/priority standards to guarantee to learn for all students. School administrators should focus their feedback on these strategic assessments to be strategic themselves.
Maybe Teaching Isn’t the Issue
Often, when school administrators see ineffective teaching, they provide feedback that encourages educators to rethink the instruction. If the target isn’t accurate, however, the instructional issue may not be fixed. For example, if an educator is teaching more toward an assessment that focuses on “identification,” but the standard asks for “evaluation,” this is an assessment issue rather than an instructional issue. It signals a misunderstanding of expectations for student learning and instruction.
Educators have (or should have) team meetings in their schedules that are a sacred times to focus on student learning, from unpacking standards to learning targets to examining data and, yes, designing and norming assessments. As these meetings are scheduled, school administrators can hold that time sacred to demonstrate instructional leadership and make the commitment to attend.
Feedback on Instruction
This advice raises the question, “Well, what about feedback on teaching—how does that happen?” While this is a resource issue, it’s important to consider how classroom teachers might provide feedback to each other—lab sites, release time—even with those who teach part-time and coach part-time. With technology, there’s also an opportunity to video-record lessons and engage in coaching conversations asynchronously.
Teachers appreciate feedback from people they trust and who know the content they’re teaching. The teacher who is given feedback continues to be grounded in the current reality of the classroom and instructional practice that fellow educators experience.
In this way, school leaders communicate that they care about teaching in the classroom and they trust educators to provide that feedback and reflect through a collaborative approach. This empowers educators to hone their craft, honors their gifts, and continually signals a nonnegotiable expectation that all educators give, receive, and reflect on feedback to improve their instruction.
By reconsidering what feedback school administrators give to educators and how they give it, we might stop doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Of course, school administrators still should go into classrooms. Instructional rounds and walk-throughs to collect data are effective for knowing and understanding what teaching and learning look like at a school. They’re powerful learning experiences for all.
Time is always an issue, however, so school administrators need to be strategic in managing their instructional leadership. By focusing feedback on assessments, they may have a greater impact on practice than they realize, and in a more efficient way.